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Greece struggles to lure tourists back amid rising COVID-19 cases

Tourism has been slow to return to Greece since it reopened to international travelers in July. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
Tourism has been slow to return to Greece since it reopened to international travelers in July. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

ATHENS, Greece, Sept. 1 (UPI) -- Greece has been one of Europe's COVID-19 success stories, keeping infections and deaths to a rate far lower than most of its neighbors. But the country's crucial tourism industry has struggled since reopening in July, as infections are rising and international travelers have remained wary of visiting.

On the streets surrounding the Acropolis, the magnificent archaeological site that looms over Athens, small groups of tourists can be found browsing souvenir shops and dining outside colorful tavernas. However, foot traffic remains sparse since Greece began allowing international arrivals from Europe and a handful of other countries on July 1.

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"My business is 10 to 15% of what it was a year ago," said Mikhail Koshevyy, an artist who sells watercolors near the Acropolis. "Maybe there are more tourists going to the islands, but not many are coming to Athens. I'm happy they are returning, but I'm only working three days a week now because it's still so empty here."

It's not hard to understand why Greece has been eager to get its tourism industry moving again. The sector accounts for around 20% of Greece's GDP and provides 700,000 jobs. Last year, some 33 million international tourists visited.

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While neighbors such as Italy, Spain and Turkey suffered massive coronavirus outbreaks, Greece managed the pandemic with a strict and early lockdown and an effective health messaging campaign that saw widespread public buy-in. Even after a recent surge in cases, the country's overall death toll stood at only 262 as of Sunday.

The response was so successful that by mid-June, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was ready to declare that "Greek tourism is back."

"Essentially, we're trying to save whatever we can from what many considered to be a completely lost tourism season," he told reporters on the picturesque Aegean island of Santorini.

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"As people come and as we open up gradually in July, and if news continue to be positive, I'm sure that towards the tail end of the summer in August, September, why not October, people will feel more comfortable to book even late holidays and start traveling again," he added.

The early returns on the reopening have been modest. Greece's Civil Aviation Authority recorded just 1.1 million international passenger arrivals in July, down 72.5% compared to the previous year.

In an August report, the International Monetary Fund placed Greece second only to Thailand among countries hardest hit by a decline in tourism due to COVID-19, projecting a 6% decline in GDP for 2020. Hotels saw their revenues for the second quarter of the year drop by 94.3% compared to the year before, according to the Hellenic Statistical Authority.

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Greece is planning to help rebuild its tourism industry with a large chunk of the more than 70 billion euros in COVID-19 recovery funds it will receive from the European Union. In the meantime, those who make a living based around tourism are holding on and hoping for the best.

"I still have a little bit of hope that more tourists will come," said Lefteros Mylonopoulos, a 30-year-old street performer who dresses as a Spartan warrior and takes photos with tourists near ancient sites.

Right now, though, he says business is slower than he's even seen it, gesturing to a nearly empty pedestrian boulevard, Dionysiou Areopagitou, which is usually filled with tourists.

"I used to take as many as 500 photos a day with tourists," he said. "Now, it's around 10 or 20."

For the international travelers who have decided to come to Greece, there are certainly benefits -- hotel prices are low and availability is high, while popular destinations once overrun with crowds are nearly empty.

On a recent Friday afternoon, only a small number of tourists were lined up to buy tickets to access the Acropolis, a complex of ancient sites that includes the Parthenon and Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an ancient outdoor theater where performances are still held.

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Once they entered, the tourists had plenty of room to linger in front of the ancient wonders, taking photos and selfies among the strangely empty backdrop.

The act of traveling after months of isolation also offered a tantalizing glimpse of a return to normal life to some visitors.

"Traveling again been wonderful," said Maddie Hopen, 24, who lives in London. "I've been stuck at home for four or five months."

She said she was felt safe in Greece, but still wore a face mask even as many other visitors to the Acropolis went without.

"I'm not too worried about the coronavirus, but I'm still being cautious," she said. "There could be a second wave coming as people start to relax."

And indeed, in recent weeks Greece has seen a surge in infections that have further rattled tourism hopes for this year. The country added over 5,000 new cases in the month of August, more than doubling its total caseload since the pandemic began.

Greek officials have been quick to point out that the surge in cases is not due to international travel, however.

"Is tourism responsible for the upward trend in cases in our country? The answer is categorically no," Greece's Deputy Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias said on Aug. 18.

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Hardalias said 615 cases came from arrivals to Greece in the period between July 1 and Aug. 16, representing just 17% of the overall total.

He added that Greece was "a long way" from another lockdown.

Authorities have instead taken a targeted approach in specific locations, such as the popular islands of Mykonos and Paros, where bars and restaurants must close early, large gatherings are banned and masks are mandated indoors and out.

For experts, that measured approach makes the most sense at this point.

"You should not be talking about lockdowns anymore," said Stella Ladi, an assistant professor of public management at Queen Mary University of London and Panteion University, Athens. The outbreak "should handled locally and with specific measures. You cannot ban everything -- you have to choose what you are doing."

Ladi agreed that tourism is not the primary factor in the recent rise in cases in Greece.

"The main problem right now is the younger people that are relaxing and trying to go back to their normal life and enjoy the summer," she said. "It's not so much that the spread is coming from opening the borders."

Mark Cameron, an immunologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said Greece has the capability to keep the virus from spreading but that health officials will have to keep a close eye on numerous factors, including tourism.

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"They can stomp out the brush fires before they get connected and cause an epidemic level event in Greece, but they're going to have to manage that very carefully," he said. "The bright spot is that Greece has shown that it knows how to stop the infection and get it back to almost zero. How they do that will involve some tough decisions."

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